Back in time: Yamhill Valley - 1859
A look at what life was like hereabouts a century and a half ago
By KARL KLOOSTER
Of the News-Register
The Beaver State's sesquicentennial celebration begins today, February 14, 2009. Happy 150th birthday, Oregon. Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day, too. After all, you're one sweetheart of a state.
To commemorate this singular milestone, let's travel back in time to 1859, when the Yamhill Valley was still very much on the frontier and its settlement had only begun to take shape.
Though the vast majority of early settlers trekked across the plains with the intention of acquiring a donation land claim and cultivating that land, among them were nascent entrepreneurs whose dreams didn't revolve exclusively around a farming-centered lifestyle.
Instead, they saw opportunities to provide the evolving agriculturally-based economy with needed goods and services. Like their farming friends and neighbors, these pioneers also took up land claims, but with a different purpose in mind.
They made use of the land by platting townsites, selling parcels, constructing mills, operating ferries, running general stores, livery stables and blacksmith shops and persuading others to join them in their community-building efforts.
Even though the establishment of towns hadn't been factored into the original land claim concept, practicality bore out its inclusion when the Donation Land Claim Act was finally formalized and passed by Congress in 1850
This obviously worked to the benefit of certain farsighted individuals, some of whom had already laid the foundations for their personal success on the frontier. Rather than hewing it from the forest or tilling the soil, they did so by nurturing the infrastructure.
It was predicted early on that the most logical place for a permanent settlement in the Yamhill Valley was at the Falls of the Yam Hill River. Francis Fletcher and Amos Cook were the first to arrive in 1840, but both were farmers.
The beginning of town building at Yam HIll Falls was left to Joel Perkins, who took up the land claim adjacent to the river but met an untimely death before he could see his efforts come to fruition.
Jacob Hawn bought the claim and carried its initial development forward. By 1859, the Falls, which by then was becoming known as Lafayette after Perkins' Indiana hometown, teemed with commercial activity.
Retail merchants and tradesmen, a physician and a druggist set up shop there attracting business from around the valley. A post office, teaching academy and several churches added to the structural substance.
Having been the seat of county government since pre-territorial days, the town boasted the area's first major public building, a courthouse, which solidified the town's preeminent stature and made it home to several attorneys-at-law.
When the first courthouse burned in 1857, it was quickly replaced by a more imposing one. River traffic included paddlewheel boats carrying passengers and supplies from Portland and a ferry crossing at the falls.
Attorneys Matthew Deady and David Logan, both of whom became prominent judges, were among the early residents, along with women's rights activist Abigail Duniway. These learned and loquacious individuals helped lend Lafayette its reputation as "The Athens of the West."
To get there cross country, horsedrawn wagons and mounted riders traversed the old Indian trail along the Tualatin River to Forest Grove, from there south to Lafayette, then on into the rapidly evolving village of McMinnville.
The trip took three days under normal conditions with most travelers laying over in Oregon City, which had been the territorial capital. It hoped to retain that distinction after statehood, but ultimately lost out to longtime rival Salem.
McMinnville founder, William T. Newby, was perhaps the Yamhill Valley's most ambitious and energetic town proprietor. He traveled from Fort Vancouver and followed that Indian trail to a place crossed by a creek, later called Cozine, in 1844.
There, just north of the claim taken by John Baker, Newby farmed for nine years then built a grist mill in 1853. Local farmers, whose only alternative was to take their grain to Oregon City, made his new venture an overnight success.
The city of McMinnville got its start around that mill. By 1859, a thriving little village had sprung up along the much-used Indian trail, now called Baker Street, and along Adams Street, named for another local pioneer, Sebastian Adams.
Newby's tiny mill town had already overtaken its neighboring rival by 1860 when the census counted 445 people in McMinnville and 426 in Lafayette. Yamhill County's total was 3,245, reflecting the fact that farm dwellers far outnumbered townies.
It was only the beginning of a flourishing future for the city, guided for another decade by its shrewd founder who ensured its long-term dominance by negotiating a deal with railroad man Joseph Gaston to bypass Lafayette in favor of McMinnville.
Joel Palmer, Christopher Taylor and Andrew Smith all played a part in Dayton's founding, though Palmer and Taylor were the legal claimants, having laid out the town in 1850, half on Palmer's claim, half on what was purchased from Smith.
Dayton was enjoying its day as the area's most active riverport when the stars and stripes added their 33rd star. Its docks handled the shipping of the vast majority of grain grown in the valley at the time.
Fire, an all-too-common hazard then, destroyed Palmer's sawmill in 1859. A major flood in 1861 all but took out the town's central district clustered along the riverbank.
But it was soon rebuilt on higher ground, barely missing a beat in growth that continued through the 19th century.
The first precursor of Amity appeared in 1849 when a school was built on John Watt's land claim. His son, Ahio, became its first teacher after agreeing not go to the California gold fields if local families would settle their wrangling over the school's location.
The town was platted in 1854 and by statehood five years later three retail merchants, two blacksmiths, a saddle maker and a wagon builder were doing business on Trade Street.
These were the Yamhill Valley's only towns - villages actually - when Oregon joined the union in 1859. None of them was as yet incorporated. The sites of other communities yet to come were still being farmed, mostly by their donation land claimants.
Sheridan's founder Absolem B. Faulconer, who had arrived in 1847, farmed for nearly two decades before platting the town in 1866. He named it for the heroic civil war general who, as a young lieutenant, had commanded Fort Yamhill in the late 1850s.
Farthest west of any valley settlement, Willamina didn't begin development until almost 20 years later, though a post office was established there in 1855.
Both Carlton and Yamhill were latecomers community-wise, as well. What would be called North Yamhill for nearly five decades took root in the mid 1860s and Carlton's commercial stirrings began in the early 1870s.
At the valley's far east end, Newberg was referred to both as Chehalem and Roger's Landing after its founder, Joseph Rogers who had arrived in 1848. Were it not for Rogers' early death in 1855, the town would likely have been called Chehalem.
Owing to its location, there was considerable coming and going in the area from that time forward, but the town wasn't platted until 1883.
The adjacent settlement of Dundee was started essentially as a company town in 1881 to serve Scottish entrepreneur William Reid's Oregonian Railway Company.
And that's the way it was on February 14, 1859 in the fertile valley called Yam Hill, though no yams were grown on its hills or flatlands, for that matter, and the Yamhelas Indian tribe name had been corrupted for convenience.